Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Monday Morning Quarterback?

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - At the risk of sounding like a Monday morning quarterback: I knew it!

That was my reaction to reading about the disappointing box office returns for the much-hyped Snakes on a Plane, which, over the past year until its release on Friday, had generated a lot---a lot---of buzz on the Web---enough early buzz, certainly, to lead the filmmakers to turn what was originally a PG-13 flick into an R one---and was expected to make big bucks for its studio, New Line, this weekend. This, as it turned out, was not to be: even though it debuted at No. 1 in the box office standings, it earned only a bit over half as much as Hollywood analysts were expecting ($15.2 million as opposed to the $20-$30 million predicted).

Surprise? Maybe to someone like Exhibitor Relations president Paul Dergarabedian, but not quite a big surprise to me. Remember, Megamovies employee?

Yeah, Megamovies had two night screenings of Snakes on Thursday night, but one of my managers told me on Friday evening during a shift that only 100 people showed up for those two altogether. And over the weekend---and I pretty much worked there all weekend, with shifts on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, a first for me---I couldn't help but notice that the movie wasn't playing to exactly sellout crowds or anything. In fact, on Friday night, the fake-college comedy Accepted got down to front-row seating at an evening show, not Snakes.

What happened? Not sure I could tell you for certain. All I can suggest is that maybe this time people weren't fooled by the media coverage hyping up the film. I mean, what kind of movie would you expect with a title like Snakes on a Plane? I've heard it suggested that, because of all the media hype, people already felt like they had seen the film (especially with those now-famous reports of star Samuel L. Jackson being called in after the initial wrap to say "I want these motherfuckin' snakes off this motherfuckin' plane!"---as if he needed more angry-black-man obscenities in his repertoire). But maybe people just saw the film for what it is: a breezy B-movie with an enormous amount of Web-generated buzz. Nothing more, nothing less. Proof, maybe, that people's moviegoing tastes aren't always governed by what the media suggests is popular? That, unlike what the studios may think, we can actually intelligently think for ourselves? Well, I hope so.


I didn't watch Snakes on a Plane this weekend. (Curiosity might tempt me to catch it sometime this week, although I suspect the news about its disappointing box-office returns might convince me to simply wait 'til this appears on video.) Instead, I decided to catch Little Miss Sunshine (**½ out of ****), the Sundance favorite that was finally released nationwide this past weekend (not to mention the film I had wanted to see at Princeton before a 7:40 p.m. sellout forced my friend and I to catch something else instead).

Perhaps I've written about this in a previous blog entry, but comedies are always a tricky thing with me. It's tempting to simply acclaim a movie comedy for doing what most regular moviegoers expect it to do: make you laugh. But, as a wannabe "serious" moviegoer, I expect myself to find something more interesting to say about a film other than whether it made me laugh or not. Often, I expect myself to be able to figure out why a comedy made me laugh, or---even more complexly---why I feel a little bit indifferent about a comedy that nevertheless made me laugh.

Well, I can safely say that Little Miss Sunshine didn't make me feel indifferent, and that it did make me laugh. I can also say that, after two days of reflection (I saw it Sunday evening), I don't feel like I got much out of the movie other than 1-3/4 hours of quirkily amusing and occasionally touching fun---not much to think about, ultimately, for all its satirical jabs at self-delusional motivational speakers, kiddie beauty queens, and hate-filled sons.

Of course, you may be thinking: why should a movie comedy have to be deep or satirical or even insightful to be great? Can't it just be funny? Which is why I guess I'm struggling a little bit to come up with a confident critical response to Little Miss Sunshine: it made me laugh, but I also found it just a little soulless.

First, a few words about the "plot." This is yet another episodic road-trip movie, this one with a dysfunctional family headed to a kiddie beauty pageant in California, where the daughter, Olive (Abigail Breslin), has been nominated for the finals of the Little Miss Sunshine contest. This family is quite a bunch: the patriarch, Richard (Greg Kinnear), is a motivational speaker who desperately tries to live by his own nine-step program even as he meets with failure after failure; the son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), is a deliberately silent, introspective person who hates everybody and yearns to be a flyer in the Army; the grandpa (Alan Arkin), recently kicked out of an old-folks home, snorts heroin and looks at porn without shame; and the mother, Sheryl (Toni Collette), is basically your usual long-suffering housewife looking to her husband for hope for a better financial situation. Oh, and one cannot forget the suicidal gay uncle, Frank (Steve Carell), who basically pissed away his reputation as the "leading Proust scholar in the world" out of sexual frustration---a lover who eventually left him for a rival, the "second leading Proust scholar in the world."

Little Miss Sunshine is essentially a portrait of a bunch of losers who, as it turns out, don't really turn their fortunes around by the end of the film: in spite of its faux-happy ending (high-spirited dancing and all), the various members of the family are, if anything, in worse shape (to varying degrees) than when they started the trip. One of the things I liked about the film is how screenwriter Michael Arndt and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris don't condescend to their messed-up characters, don't make them easy objects of ridicule. Sure, Richard's attempts to live by his win-at-all-costs philosophy is clearly seen as self-delusional and tiresome, but one can also sense the desperation in his incessant repetition of his own philosophy to himself---it's as if he wants badly to believe it in spite of all that goes wrong (his book deal, for instance, goes splat). All of the family members want to come up on top, ultimately; I guess it's supposed to be seen as subversive that, in the end, none of them really do. That's life, right?

There's something about the movie that bothers me, though: some of the details, details that may seem trivial or plain amusing at first glance, but, when you think about them, add up to suggest that the filmmakers were less interested in honestly satirizing real human behavior than in being as quirky as possible, and---worse---stacking the deck in order to make this already weirdo family seem normal compared to the insensitive or just plain strange oddballs they come across. In one scene, for instance, a "bereavement liaison" in a hospital is painted by the film as insensitive and impossibly rigid, even though, if you think about it, it's obvious---to me, anyway---that she's really just doing her job. Another scene has a suspicious policeman let the family go after noticing a bunch of Grandpa's porno mags. But most of the easy shots come at the concluding beauty pageant, which pretty much ridicules nearly everybody involved---including the bitchy registrar lady, who, tellingly, is done up in some retro '50s hairstyle that clearly strikes me as a condescending touch. The filmmakers may not condescend to the main characters, but to everyone else in the film's vision of the world, they spread their smirky venom.

But should we be necessarily looking to comedies for representations of real-world behavior? I mean, no one watches a spoof movie like Airplane! looking for human comedy of the Jean Renoir variety. The thing is, Little Miss Sunshine is done in a "realistic" manner that's meant to amuse us into thinking it's a human comedy, so it's disappointing to discover that, for all its moments of genuine pathos amid the admittedly funny dysfunctional-family hijinks, the film essentially wants to be a crowd-pleasing quirkfest of the Wes Anderson variety. It seems to me more like Wes Anderson without genuine awareness of real-world pain (and certainly without Anderson's obssessive attention to visual detail and adult fairy-tale atmosphere).

The filmmakers are lucky that they have such a great ensemble cast to give each character at least some basis in reality. Greg Kinnear, for instance, could have made his character a caricature, but he projects that palpable sense of desperation that makes his "loser"/"winner" speechifying almost sympathetic instead of merely sad. And I was impressed by Carell, who somehow commands attention in scenes without seeming to do all that much except stay in perfect deadpan character (he begins the movie in a hospital after a suicide attempt). Even little Abigail Breslin manages to be cute without making a big show of it: you can believe that the family would see her as some kind of beacon of, uh, "winner"-dom, such innocence she exudes even as she obssesses over her looks.

And, as much as I have trouble with the film's smug vision of the outside world, I must concede that the film contains finely-detailed characters who act in ways that may be surprising at times, yet seem reasonable in context. When you finally see what little Olive has cooked up with her grandpa for the talent portion of the Little Miss Sunshine contest, it'll make all the sense in the world.

I suppose I can't hate this movie too much, because I did enjoy the film as I watched it, and it is so well-acted and well-written. Look, I enjoy oddball characters and dark humor as much as the next guy, but it seems to me that when just about everyone in a movie is turned into oddballs---not just the main characters, but side characters as well---then the film ceases to be human comedy and simply becomes a collection of precious quirks with barely a connection to recognizable human behavior. To a certain extent, I think that's what happens in Little Miss Sunshine, and why, as entertaining and sweet as it is, it doesn't really stay with you the way something like, say, The Royal Tenenbaums---to cite another recent offbeat dysfunctional family comedy---does. No insight is provided into why some Americans are so obssessed with winning or coming out on top at whatever cost; it's just yet another quirk to be cataloged.

And if that means I'm taking yet another comedy way too seriously---well, then so be it.


odienator said...

I have to disagree with you on both counts here, and I'm also going to take you to task for that media comment you made.

If there's a problem with Little Miss Sunshine, which I enjoyed far more than you did, it's that it ultimately becomes hypocritical. It is that which it chooses to spoof. And while the performers all turn in good work (Steve Carrell is fantastic here), I never thought I was supposed to take them seriously. They ARE caricatures, and it's to the cast's credit that they take these stock roles and make them their own.

Satire is always soulless. By your rationale, Dr. Strangelove would also fail your test, and it's the greatest satirical comedy ever made. It has no soul whatsoever. It's an evil, evil film, and that's why it's brilliant. It's also hilarious.

As for comedies, the best thing ANYBODY can say about them is that it made one laugh. It's their job. Who gives a fuck about a well-acted comedy that isn't funny? It can have great cinematography and nice music, maybe even a good structure, but if it's not funny, it's a failure. Come on. Comedies don't require deep thought or snobbish introspection. Either you laugh or you don't. It's like porn: if it does its job, you don't care about the camera angles.

The Royal Tennenbaums is the only Wes Anderson movie I liked. It evaporated from my head as soon as it was over, but while I was watching it, I enjoyed myself. I think it's far quirkier than Little Miss Sunshine; Anderson goes so far that he creates an entire universe that's off the wall.

As for Snakes on a Plane, it did as well as a cult movie should have done. My screening was sold out, and everyone I know who has seen it has also had a sold out crowd. That surprised me. I wasn't expecting long lines. I'm glad that it didn't do $30 million because now its cult status is cemented. This is going to be the new Rocky Horror.

The media didn't play it up as a good movie; they played it up as exactly what it was: a movie about snakes on a plane. That the movie is better than the media hype suggested was a pleasant surprise. But even if there were no media hype, I would have wanted to see a movie called Snakes on a Plane. I am sure that it would have made far less if it were still called Pacific Air Flight 121.

As an angry Black man who says far more curses than Samuel L. Jackson, I say "Cuss some more, Sam!" For the record, he says "I have had it with these muthafuckin' snakes on this muthafuckin' plane," not "I want these muthafuckin' snakes off this muthafuckin' plane." Sam Jackson spits, curses and yells. He's Al Pacino with a tan. It's his muthafuckin' trademark, along with the hideous things he does to his hair from role to role.

One more thing: You said:

Curiosity might tempt me to catch it sometime this week, although I suspect the news about its disappointing box-office returns might convince me to simply wait 'til this appears on video.

Um, and you're accusing people of being guided by the media? You're curious, but you're not going to go because the box office receipts were lousier than the MEDIA predicted they would be? Is Little Mr. Sunshine playing at the box office at Megamovies? :)

kenjfuj said...


Oh you're sharp. I didn't even catch that little contradiction regarding my media comment. My only response to your point, I guess, is: I really wasn't all that interested in Snakes on a Plane to begin with. The only reason I felt a twinge of curiosity was that, as a wannabe journalist, I felt I probably should be more curious about it than I was. I mean, it seems to me that's what journalists are supposed to be: curious. Otherwise, I didn't feel the need to see the film before it came out, and---forgetting the journalist part of me and simply responding as a moviegoer looking at the media just like any moviegoer might---I don't feel much of a need to see it now.

Guess that doesn't really plug up the contradiction you brought up; maybe it's just because I'm a dunderhead who has no business trying to be more stir-people-up provocative than I am by nature.

And personally, I think Samuel L. Jackson's angry-black-man thing is getting a little old. Did you see Freedomland earlier this year? He had some good, sensitive scenes in it, to be sure. At other times, though, he seemed to be yelling for no particular reason that I could think of. Made me think more about Dave Chappelle's merciless spoof of Jackson rather than about Jackson's skill as an actor.

As for your response to my comments on Little Miss Sunshine: well yes, Dr. Strangelove is "soulless," but the way Stanley Kubrick directed the film, he let you know it. He didn't try for "touching" moments at all; its satire remained pitch black throughout, and at no point did it compromise to try to bring in any glimmer of hope for the characters or for the world. At heart, Little Miss Sunshine does have a similar kind of hopelessness, but it seems to me that it also tries to be heartwarming at the same time. Maybe that's basically my problem with it: it doesn't go quite far enough with its satire. (Is that what you meant by "hypocritical"?) It tries to be uplifting in a familiar crowd-pleasing way even as it makes merciless fun of the patriarch's self-delusion, and even as it makes sitting ducks out of the various side characters---the supposedly insensitive "bereavement liaison," the cop who lets the family go because of Grandpa's porno mags. Funny, perhaps, but necessary? Maybe only to make the world around the family seem stranger than the family itself: to make their collective loser-ness seem almost logical.

Look, it's certainly important that comedies make us laugh. That's what they're supposed to do: they're supposed to be funny. I agree. But, as a wannabe "serious" film critic, I feel like it's not enough for me to say "oh yeah, I laughed" and leave it at that. Somehow, that seems kinda boring to me. And besides, if a comedy doesn't necessarily make you laugh out loud yet does challege you on some level---if it does somehow inspire deep thought or even deep emotion---is it necessarily a failure? Or if it doesn't make you laugh out loud, yet is done in such a way---through film technique, for instance---that creates a kind of visual humor that isn't necessarily meant to make you laugh out loud, does it necessarily mean it's a failure?

Am I making any sense at all here, or am I just sounding like I'm on crazy pills?

Believe me, I laughed quite a bit during Little Miss Sunshine, and really, I did enjoy the film while I watched it. But, as satirically dead-on as some of it was, other parts of it struck me as a little condescending and too "quirky" for its own good. I guess my comments on this particular blog entry were an attempt to explain why I felt the way I did. Well, maybe I am just humorless at heart.